No Plan C: Chicago Schools Brace For Budget Cuts

No Plan C: Chicago Schools Brace For Budget Cuts
Forrest Claypool after giving a speech at a City Club of Chicago luncheon WBEZ/Becky Vevea
No Plan C: Chicago Schools Brace For Budget Cuts
Forrest Claypool after giving a speech at a City Club of Chicago luncheon WBEZ/Becky Vevea

No Plan C: Chicago Schools Brace For Budget Cuts

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The leader of Chicago Public Schools has two plans for addressing the district’s budget crunch. One is pretty unlikely, the other is pretty damaging.  

Year after year, district officials have warned of millions, even billions in budget shortfalls. But every year, CPS magically closes its books in the black.

District chief Forrest Claypool says that’s because the district’s done a lot of magical borrowing, from teachers’ pensions, future property taxes, and actual borrowing from banks.

“It’s like using your credit card to go on a binge and then at one point, the clerk comes over and says, ‘I’m sorry, your card has been rejected,’” Claypool said in an interview with WBEZ last week.

All of that debt is now eating up the revenue that could otherwise be spent in classrooms. This year, the district has a $480 million hole to fill in its current budget.

Claypool says there will be no magical solution this year. His Plan A will be to get a big compromise from state and local politicians.

While Claypool says there are many different ways to get a compromise, the mayor outlined one option: the state picks up normal pension costs for the district, restores a pension levy for teachers, gets teachers to pick up more of their pension contributions, and increases state education money by 25 percent.

“We’re not asking for a bailout, which is the perception in the past,” Claypool said. “We’re talking about a dramatic inequality in funding. We’re saying that we get $3 for every $4 that you’re giving the suburbs and downstate.You can not ignore that. Even in the context of what’s going on in Springfield, you can not ignore that.”

Except it has been pretty much ignored.

So what is Plan B?

“Well, Plan B is what we were talking about, we would have to engage in classroom cuts and more unsustainable borrowing,” Claypool said, before trailing back to Plan A.

The budget cuts are steep and they would come in the middle of the school year. Principals and parents have said they’re hearing anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of a school’s total budget could be slashed.

The looming cuts have sparked protests from students across the city. On Wednesday, just as Claypool was scheduled to visit, a couple hundred students at Lindblom Math & Science Academy walked out to protest the possible cuts.

“I’m fed up with the budget cuts, honestly,” said Amber Adams, a senior at Lindblom. “I’m tired of all the changes in the middle of the year. This is not consistent and it’s messing with my education.”

More than 200 other principals recently signed a letter asking the state and the city to find a solution that will avoid that kind of disruption in the middle of the school year.

Without more state money and to avoid budget cuts, Claypool may have to go to a Plan C. When asked what his Plan C is, he did not have an answer. If there is one, he’s not sharing it with the public yet.

Parents like Roger Wilen are almost used to the uncertainty by now. Wilen has two children at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy in Lakeview.

“I think a lot of people think somehow it’s all going to get worked out because, how could it not be?” he said, standing in the hallway of Hawthorne last week.

Hawthorne stands to lose up to seven teachers in the middle of the school year if CPS implements Plan B. Wilen can’t imagine elected officials would let that happen.

“But at the end of the day, if they don’t get their act together, you could lose good people and programming,” he said. “And then who’s going to stay in Chicago Public Schools?”

It’s an important point. The number of children in Chicago has dropped significantly. All schools — public and private — have been impacted. But for CPS, about 13,000 kids left the district in the last five years alone. Claypool says that isn’t going to stop.

“In 10 years from now, we’ll have fewer students, probably 30,000 or 40,000 fewer students,” Claypool said.

The state funds schools based on how many students are enrolled, so with fewer students, CPS will inevitably have a smaller budget. It brings up a whole host of questions, the most important of which is just how many schools does the city need?

Claypool says he’s working on answers to that and other questions. But so far, the only downsizing he’s announced is a $50 million reduction in central office staff.

In the meantime, many schools are already under-enrolled, including many high schools that have long been cornerstones of their communities. Under-enrollment hurts a school’s ability to build robust academic and extracurricular programs.

Maurice Swinney is the principal at Tilden High School, which has just over 300 students.

“One teacher in our building affects 75 children, so you’re talking about a gap in relationships first and then if that one person taught classes, then those classes have to be shifted or absorbed,” Swinney said. “What does that mean for a student entering into a new classroom or losing his honors or AP class because of budget cuts?”

But Swinney is leaning on district leaders to come up with a long-term plan. He said he can’t let himself get distracted by the politics.

“There are kids in front of (me) now, and the responsibility that they’re well-equipped is the main priority,” he said.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.